Great Lakes Relay – Pepper and the Gingerbread Girls!

Meet the Gingerbread Girls!

This past weekend I found myself on a team of 10 kick-ass girls from Michigan ready to run as hard as we could for 3 days covering 278 miles of scenic northern Michigan. It was 2012 Great Lakes Relay time! We came to run hard, to have fun, and to make a statement that fast women runners could contend at this annual race which normally is dominated by collegiate/post collegiate male or co-ed teams. We were called The Gingerbread Girls and we were ready to prove that no one would catch us if we brought our A game.

The Handicaps:

These guys teams were surprised to see an all women’s team already up front with the big dogs on Day 1!

As a rookie at GLR I was not sure what to expect, but be sure I was intimidated and my primary goal was to run the best I could. There has only been one fast all girls team in recent history at GLR and I knew our team’s organizers wanted that to change. GLR offers time handicaps to try and even out the competition. If you are an all male team of 20 and 30 somethings you would get no handicap. Add a female to the mix and as long as she covers at least 24 miles you get a small handicap, same goes for any additional women. Then there are handicaps for having masters and grand masters on the team. The Gingerbread Girls, an all-women team with one master and two grand masters had a handicap of 0.871. We expected to be in the top 5 with our handicap. With our bright pink shirts and our obvious speed many teams on the course were rooting for the Gingerbread Girls and a few teams were keeping a wary eye on us to try and stay ahead.

The logistics:

The logistics of a relay race like this are intense and it takes not only a fast team, but a well-organized one to do well at an event like this. We were on our game and managed to make minimal mistakes. I was very glad we had GLR vets in charge! These women did a fantastic job choosing legs for everyone, organizing travel, sleeping, and eating arrangements as well as recruiting the best team possible. With several GLR rookies it was pretty amazing that we had so few problems, only losing about 10 minutes due to a few wrong turns. Perhaps an all girls team has some perks those men didn’t think of?  And despite being an efficient, fast machine of runners, we all managed to have tons of fun.

The Teamwork:

GLR seems to be a reunion for many Michigan runners.

As highly competitive women it was obvious at the start that each of us had personal goals and no one wanted to be the weakest link, but as the days and legs tallied up the tension of proving oneself eased and the team camaraderie rose. We were in this together and we wanted to place as high as possible. It was great to see the young rookies take more ownership of the team as each day progressed, and to see them helping more with logistics and non-running duties once they started to figure out the GLR daily routine. As the days went forward it wasn’t uncommon to hear “war stories” going on from other teams and clear personality conflicts were testing many runners patience. I am happy to say Gingerbread Girls had a fantastic blend of fast women and personalities that made for a great team!

Runners cool off in the Au Sable River after day 1!

The Daily Routine:

Each day started around 4 AM with a wake up call and a trip to our respective starting lines. Throughout the day we would find ourselves driving, navigating, running, snacking, and waiting between each leg of the relay. With 100 miles the first two days and 77 the last this made for long days traversing around Northern Michigan, with 6 am race starts and dinnertime finishes. After our final runner crossed the finish we would celebrate, have a beer, and head back to the sleeping quarters. We would have dinner and eat and then finally on the border of passing out we’d have our team meeting going over the next day.

The Race:

Two OTQ marathoners at one of many exchanges for the Gingerbread Girls.

We kicked off the relay with a bang putting our two Olympic Trials marathoners on the 1st and 3rd legs. Our young trail stud tackled leg 2, and our 4th leg captain hammered us into the top 10 for the day so far. By half way through the day with each gal tackling a leg we were actually up on the first team with our handicap.  It was obvious we weren’t just there to stealthily climb our way to the top. We were there to compete and teams were starting to notice this team of all women runners.

On the 2nd and 3rd mornings the runners at the first leg received a sheet detailing the results of the previous day. We found out after the first morning that we were in 2nd place.  Though the second day brought tougher terrain, crazier weather (heat, sun, and then crazy lighting and torrential pouring), and all on tired legs the Gingerbread Girls held on to second place.

Team Meat Train in 3rd was having none of it and on day three they upped their stud runners distance in an attempt to pass us and try to take down M-10, the team in 1st, who now had a 24 minute lead on us. We all hammered our legs. I was feeling the pressure to really bring it home on my only and last leg of the race. With 3.5 miles on the beach to finish out my 6 miles I thankfully put up a good performance and the Gingerbread girls just barely held onto second after Meat Train put up an amazing third day (running faster than first place M-10 for the day by 4 minutes) closing to within just 39 seconds.

Overall our team of fast ladies ended up in 2nd place with the handicap. Without the handicap we were the 10th team with an average pace of 6:56 based on time amongst all the open and mixed teams. This is super bad ass considering we had two females over 50 and many of our younger runners have never done anything like this. While there were a few legs out there with possibilities for fast miles this course is mostly tough and that average pace is sick for 10 women running 25+ miles over the course of three days on minimal sleep. The top team averaged 5:57 pace.

The Summary:

The team photo happened so fast I was still drenched from running into Lake Michigan after my leg!

I sincerely recommend the GLR experience. It was a great way to spend a weekend doing what I love and a great reminder that there are all forms of racing fun to be had. It was great to be on a team again if only for a weekend and I wish all these girls the best of luck in this years running adventures ahead! Though our legs may be trashed, our drivers cars may never smell the same again, and our minds may not be focused at work on Monday, this was an amazing time. I am so proud of our group of gals who ran so hard and proved that women can tackle an event like GLR and kick ass in the process without the help of men. What an amazing weekend full of beautiful scenery, fun times, and hard running. I’m guessing next years Gingerbread Girls will be even more stacked and that spots on the team will be in demand. Think you have what it takes?

Have you run the GLR?  Have another favorite relay race you recommend?  Do you think it was fair that our team of girls had a handicap to beat those Meat Train boys? 

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A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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    1. I don’t think the intent is to make women inferior, the intent is to put everyone on an equal playing field, men, women, old, and young. The handicaps are based on WAVA/WMA age graded statistics ( or which are built on years of running data that show that as we get older we slow down and that the top men in a distance are X% faster than the top women.

      I think I may have a post here 🙂

      To give some perspective we had a few women with OTQ marathon times meaning sub 2:46ers. Meat Train had at least one 2:20 marathoner on their team. Locally I know 5 guys that can run low 2:20s. Locally I know maybe 5 women who can go sub 2:45, I don’t know any personally that can go sub 2:20. In order to put up a team of women comparable to that I would have to get in touch with Paula Radcliffe, Deena Kastor in her prime, and the three best Kenyans in the world. Not even Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, or Desiree Davilla are running sub 2:20s, and they are a bit too busy right now to team up with the Gingerbread Girls 🙂 Though we did check to see if Katie McGregor was available!

      So in short in order to compete with the slowest of the fast boys marathoners, i.e. guys who just barely qualified for the trials, we would need the top 10 female marathoners in the world, and even then we’d likely come up short, unless we counted on those guys getting lost 🙂 Nothing against us speedy chicks, it’s just human nature, we lack the testosterone and muscle mass that men are genetically blessed with!

    2. I think it’s only fair. The fact is that the fastest women can’t run as fast as the fastest men. Women could never win otherwise. I don’t think it’s about putting women down, but equalizing the playing field. There aren’t enough teams to do separate awards, etc. I think it sounds pretty fair.

  1. Awesome! Congrats Gingerbread Girls!

    I *almost* did the Great Midwest Relay a couple of times, but have never done something like this. You are inspiring me to want to find a team!

    1. Thanks Mint! This was my second multi day relay experience the first being GMR.

      The major difference between the two being that GLR is multi day stages. i.e. a start and stop mileage each day, whereas GMR runs straight through the night. Second major difference being GMR is mostly runnable roads whereas GLR is mostly technical sand/dirt roads and trails!

      Both fun experiences!

  2. I’m almost crying in tears of joy, Elizabeth! Thank you for writing this! You’re amazing! Miss you already.

    1. Thanks for being such a fast spunky lady Brittni! It was great to meet you. You have tons of fast running ahead of you!

  3. Nice recap. Most impressive part is the 10th place overall finish without any handicap.

    I blame myself for recruiting Pepper to Team Gingerbread Girls.

    1. I agree LJF. Pre race I wondered how we would fare overall. We were actually really close to 9th and 8th too. Our team didn’t really have a single weak link which made a huge difference!

      Thanks for suckering me into the relay 😉

  4. Between the running, the competition and the camping this sounds like a total blast! I’m so glad you had a great experience and congrats to the Gingerbread Girls for such a badass performance!!!

  5. Great recap! I love the pink shirts. I ran on an all-female Bourbon Chase team last year, but it was a bit different in that we just ran through the night. A relay race is definitely its own class of adventure.

    1. I’ve done GMR which was overnight and I am not sure which style I like better. Sleeping was definitely nice 🙂

        1. We actually scored a farm house that slept 7 near our second days start and stayed in cheap motels the other two nights. Many teams do camp though!

  6. Great write-up Elizabeth. This kind of makes me miss my own blog a little bit, but I’ve written my share of GLR race reports so for once it was nice to read someone else’s!

    1. Thanks Leah! And thanks for getting me fired up to run again once I fix this foot. GLR was just the post injury/marathon blues buster I needed to get motivated to run again!

  7. Congrats to you and all your teammates, Elizabeth! This sounds like SO much fun – I’ve always wanted to run on one of these big relays!

    What a perfect use of pink as a sign of some serious athletic ability!

    1. It was great. I think you have to have a team of like minded individuals to make it a success. If anyone on the team wasn’t motivated to work hard I think it would have been tough. To the other extreme I think if I ran with a team that mostly wanted to just have fun but a few who wanted to compete that might make it stressful.

  8. Great review! I loved seeing all the photos on FB too! Sounds like so much fun was had! I love being part of a relay team:)!

    1. Thanks Michelle. It was definitely a change of pace from normal racing! And I won’t lie, my legs were absolutely trashed. The third day I really had no idea if my hamstrings would actually fire on my last leg. Thankfully for me they did!